The importance of physical appearance to the identity of Black children

Written by a Cafcass Service Manager, North West England

Skin, hair and facial features can be integral to a young Black person’s sense of self. However, in the UK, Black children and young people face discrimination about their bodies.  This is seen not only in some schools sending Black children home because their hair is deemed contrary to uniform codes, but the importance of hair, skin and other physical features to Black children is also largely overlooked in social work.

As social workers the role we play in shaping some of the most vulnerable lives in the country should be driven by the establishment of respectful and meaningful relationships with the children and young people with whom we work, to help to support healthy, safe and fulfilled childhood experiences. Our role should be informed by a deep understanding of those children’s identities.  Are we all able to step back and feel truly confident this understanding is there for each and every Black child or young person we work with? Do we all practice with a cultural awareness? Are we all going the extra mile to ensure we are doing the best job we can for Black children?

Research shows that young Black people and children have raised the significance of hair and skin colour to their life experiences, their relationships with themselves and others and their relationships with society and its institutions.

I hope that sharing some of my own experiences and observations of the short to medium term impact of our decision-making and oversight, on the placement of Black children within in the care system, coupled with the longer term impact on those who have now matured out of the corporate parenting hold, will set this into some form of tangible context.

As a mixed-race social worker, with mixed race children of my own, I know only too well the importance of maintaining the upkeep of beautiful, natural Black hair and of skin whose thirst for moisture must be quenched daily. Our hair and skin is not only a visible representation of who we are, where we are from and who our ancestors were, but inwardly, if fostered and celebrated positively from the outset, forms the very fibres of our self-worth and confidence. And for me that is where this blog should start and finish, for if we as social workers are not able to identify this cultural need, inform and support foster carers, residential units or secure placements to ensure our Black children and young people in care are able to confidently continue to express who they are through their hair and skin self-care, the impact can be adverse and lifelong.

I used to be a Local Authority social worker, managing multiple care cases of children with diversity factors dominated by the local demographic – white children in foster placements with white carers. I can vividly remember being allocated a case relating to a sibling group of five, two of whom were mixed race and had moved from London to a sleepy village in the Ribble Valley.

These two children were the only mixed race children within the locality and were placed with white foster carers on an emergency basis.  The immediate impact for those children was this: waking up the next morning in a stranger’s house with no hairbrushes, oils, creams, bobbles or skin cream and having to go to school with their hair, the core of who they are, untended to. This made them stand out more than they already felt they did, at a time when they had been removed from their family and all they had ever known. Why would we want this for our Black children?

The result, a distressed and crying little girl, who spent her lunch hour with me having her braids put in. There is learning for us all in this and for me it resulted in a simple plan whilst working in the Local Authority, ensuring timely contact with foster carers to confirm not only do they have that overnight bag prepared but that it also has self-care products and toiletries to meet the needs of Black skin and hair. This needs to be followed up with open and honest conversations about how they are going to support the child or young person going forward, whilst in their care.

The challenges faced by all carers, be they foster carers, residential and secure settings or even adoptive parents, in managing and maintaining the hair and skin of Black children are not new, although remain current. In my own experience I can go back at least 60 years and draw upon the damaging effects on a child of getting this wrong. In failing to acknowledge the beauty of natural Black hair, perhaps by trying to cover with a hat or a scarf, cutting it very short because we are unsure of what else to do, or chemically straightening it because it’s easier for the carer to brush, we are arguably denigrating that child’s identity and diluting their true sense of self.

Old family albums, the life story work of today, offer up pictures of a childhood where identity has not been celebrated and was clearly misunderstood. Memory chains hinting at the problems to come. My observations have seen this manifest in challenging behaviours, aggression, low self-esteem and long-term mental health problems in children, some of which persist into adulthood. This is an area I feel is within our gift to get right for the Black and mixed-race children we work with. Just imagine if those children were yours and then ask yourself every day, is that good enough?

Practical tips for social workers when placing Black children during care proceedings:

  • Open up and engage in the conversation with the child or young person about the importance of their skin colour and the relationship between ethnic identity, hair and skin.
  • I have found talking about hair styles for Black hair with the child or young person often helps, especially in establishing if there is any style that they prefer. Talk about hair products and if they need any special combs, oils, or creams to help them to look after their hair.  Let them drive the agenda.  What does the child or young person need for their hair?
  • Talk about hair type and hair hygiene as some children and young people have shared they like to wash their hair less frequently, sometimes only once a week, as the hair needs to be oiled often.
  • Children and young people have shared with me they like to moisturise their skin regularly. Ask the child which products they prefer.
  • Experience has shown me to have these discussions with the Local Authority social worker during that first exchange, to ensure all is place for that child or young person for their first night away from home. Ensure the social worker has also discussed these points with the foster carer, residential or secure setting.

Ever optimistic, I don’t believe any one of these discussion points with the child or young person will offend but that they will demonstrate an interest and hopefully inform us so we can ensure their basic identity needs are met. These conversations also open up opportunity for our Black children to settle into a placement, secure in the knowledge some of their basic care needs have been identified and are being met, whilst everything else around them is spinning.

Dare to be brave and embrace the beautiful diversity of all of the Black children with whom we work.




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